The Evolution of Vietnamese Ceramics

By John Stevenson

Published on 3/1/98 Things Asian

The evolution of Vietnamese ceramics parallels the course of Vietnamese history, reflecting how people lived and how they related to neighboring cultures. The vocabulary of ceramic shapes, glazes, and decorative motifs allows us to read the development of a culture that now has little remaining in the way of physical artifacts by which to trace its history.

The Chinese potter aimed for and frequently achieved perfect technique, characterized, for example, by the colossal and almost mechanist productions of the Longquan and Jingdezhen kilns. The Japanese tradition may be characterized by its consciousness of accidentally achieved beauty. The aesthetic appeal of Vietnamese ceramics, which combine informality with great technical skill, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

It is the interface between art and technology that gives ceramics their flavor. Yanagai Soetsu, founder of the Mingei movement in Japan, was awed by the beauty achieved so casually by Korean potters. He wrote of the unconcerned manner in which a Korean would set up his wheel. If the wheel was slightly off-true, the potter would compensate in a very skilled way. Nevertheless, the results would probably not be straight’and the potter simply would not care. The imperfections resulting from such an attitude can give great vigor to a vessel, yet they cannot be calculated, or the piece loses its quality of spontaneity.

It is this same serendipitous combination of spontaneity with technical excellence that makes Vietnamese ceramics so attractive.

The combination of skilled potting, rigorous shape, casual finish, free and calligraphic painting, and accidental glaze effects  all features typical of Vietnamese ceramic tradition  is powerful indeed. Perhaps the son of the former head of the Hue museum may be allowed to characterize the freedom and individualism of the Vietnamese ceramic tradition: “Chinese pottery is good for the eye; Vietnamese pottery is good for the heart.”

The evolution of the ceramics of northern Vietnam over the last two thousand years reflects the links between a culture’s artistic expression and its socioeconomic and geopolitical environments.

Editor’s Note:

This above text is a very short and incomplete excerpt from a wonderful new book which is the first definitive study of the Vietnamese ceramic tradition in any language.

Close neighbors of the Chinese, the Vietnamese were directly exposed to Chinese civilization and cultural artifacts. But Vietnamese potters did not copy Chinese ceramics directly; they combined elements in original and idiosyncratic ways, experimenting with new ideas and adopting features from other cultures, such as Cambodia and Champa. Using the excellent clays of the Red River Valley, they created the most sophisticated ceramics in Southeast Asia.

The story is given in a broad sweep of over 500 color illustrations of pieces in major public and private collections around the world. A dozen chapters examine specialized aspects of the field. The authors include archeologists, ethnologists, historians, and museum curators.

Vietnamese Ceramics by John Stevenson and John Guy, Art Media Resources, Ltd., Chicago, 1997.

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